6 unexpectedly awesome cities

We all know Paris is awesome. And New York is brilliant. Rome, Hanoi, Vienna, Cairo, sure. Totally, staggeringly good, loaded with amazing stuff – as expected.

But for awesomeness that you maybe weren't expecting, head to the sneaky cities – the cities that are quietly brilliant without the acclaim. Here's our top 6 cities that are way more awesome than expected.

  1. Kyoto, Japan

Imagine a postcard from Japan. Remember postcards? No? OK, imagine an Instagram post from Japan. Cherry blossoms hang gently over a manicured garden, a pagoda sits serenely by the side of the lake. That's Kyoto. It's very much old Japan. Traditions are cherished, the old way of doing things is respected. Tea ceremonies, traditionally-trained geishas, kimono, Japanese rock gardens, traditional crafts – Kyoto is the essence of Japan.

There is an absolute abundance of temples, shrines and palaces. Staying in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) allows you to completely submerge yourself in the pure Japanese-ness of this city.

Kyoto's local food specialty is kaiseki – a delicate multi-course cuisine designed to highlight the natural features of ingredients. Each mini-plate of food is a refined artwork, something to respect and appreciate. You need to understand the history behind it and the work that has gone into it. It is like a metaphor for many of the Japanese traditions that you will find in Kyoto – respect, time, thoughtfulness. It all add up to an incredible cultural experience.

  1. Fes, Morocco

You can't talk about Fes without talking about the medina, Fes el Bali. It's the oldest, walled part of the city  and it really is the pulsing heart of the city. The scale of the medina is hard to comprehend – it's thought be the world's largest urban pedestrian zone.

When you hear the word 'medina' you might imagine some stalls of colourful handicrafts arranged in narrow alleyways.  That's partly true – there's an astounding labyrinth of alleys, intricate old buildings, arched doorways, beautiful tile work, gorgeous handicrafts.

But it's also not like that. It's where daily life happens. It's gritty. It's real. There's men arguing in the street, there's chopped up hunks of meat being hauled from one bench to another. There's donkeys loaded with wood pushing past you along the cobbled alleys. Men getting their beards shaved, camel heads hanging on hooks, piles of herbs stacked on a blanket, women grinding spices. In the midst of the medina are Fes's leather dying pits – a beautiful series of ancient vats of colourful dye, with an incredibly serious stench.  Fes is a Moroccan assault on your senses and a totally absorbing experience


  1. Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon is a city on the cusp. Teetering on the edge of development, on the edge of modernity. For decades Myanmar (Burma) was effectively shut off from the world through political barriers. But the gates have been opened, changes are happening, and fast. It's a fascinating place to be – you can see what the isolated city was like and get a glimpse of what it will become.

The visual impact of this city is refreshing. You can look both ways down the street and not see a trace of a western brand icon – it's unusual to find a corner of the world so un-affected by global corporations. Yangon will entrance you with its old-style-Asia ways, crumbling buildings, cheap food and friendly, kind, generous local people.

At the centre of it all stands the massive Schwedagon Pagoda. It's a gilded, glistening icon, the spiritual hub of the city and, at 99 metres tall, it dominates the skyline. With its massive gold dome and surrounded by gold spires, it might just be the gold-est place on the planet. It's an icon of such stature that it will surely take its place on travellers' bucket lists of the future.


  1. Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad is a city that is beautifully, perfectly stuck in a time capsule. It will take you back to the days of the 1800s, when colonial settlers made their fortunes on the back of the sugar and tobacco industries, and the landed gentry built Italianate mansions, bedecked with chandeliers and ornate sculptures.

As the local industries fell into decline, the town stagnated – creating a kind of wealthy ghost town. The central plaza, Plaza Mayor, has been well preserved. The Church of the Holy Trinity dominates the square and next to that stands Brunet Palace – former home of the wealthy Borrell family and now a museum. On the outskirts of town, the ruins of dozens of sugar mills are well worth exploring too.

It's this historic backdrop that brings people to Trinidad, but once you're there you'll be entranced by the laid-back style of the town, the friendly people and the relaxed beachside vibe (nearby Playa Ancon is one of Cuba's best beaches). You'll find it hard to leave.


  1. Jaipur, India

Architecture is the thing that lifts Jaipur up into the realm of awesomeness. The city was founded and planned by the Raja of Amer, who laid out the major roads, offices and palaces. At Jaipur's centre is City Palace, a complex of palaces laid out around a series of gardens and courtyards. The peacock gate at the entrance to Chandra Mahal is incredibly elaborate and beautiful – and it is just one feature of many-many-many within City Palace.

Hawa Mahal, or the Palace of the Winds, has a stunning five-story facade studded with 953 windows, which was built so that the royal ladies of the palace could look out on street life below without being observed. The most famous landmark is the Amber Fort, perched on a hill about ten kilometres away from Jaipur – this ornate palace of red sandstone and marble was the home of the Rajput Maharajahs.

And that is only the beginning of Jaipur's architecture. These stunning buildings are set in the midst of a busy Indian city – crowded streets, crazy rickshaw driving, cows on the road, children selling street food, camels pulling carts. It's an entrancing combination of old and new, of wealth and poverty, of restrained architectural forms set against the chaos of daily life on the street.


  1. Panama City, Panama

Panama City is not only the capital of Panama, but it's kind of the capital of Central America as well. It's the biggest, most modern and cosmopolitan city in the region. It's a place of contrasts – shiny buildings and high-end stores live alongside street-food vendors and Panama-hat sellers.

Since the Panama Canal and surrounding lands were handed back to Panama in 1999, the city has been in a tremendous hurry to grow. But under the new “Dubai of Central America” skyscrapers, the people are the same as they always were – an incredibly friendly mob, welcoming, happy to help, eager to chat.

The city's old quarter, Casco Viejo, is UNESCO-World-Heritage listed, and it's a place rich with atmosphere, eclectic style and crumbling, ornate buildings. Casco used to somewhere you wouldn't walk at night. Gang lands – a little bit seedy, a little bit dangerous. But as many neighbourhoods around the world have shown us, seedy is the perfect platform for the rise of cool. And Casco is definitely on the rise. Get yourself there while it's still got its back-street rough edges, while it's still just becoming quietly hip.